What Black History Month Means To Me
By Jackie McGriff
Growing up, I learned about who I now call the "Fab 4" -- Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr --and because I was born and raised in Rochester, NY -- Frederick Douglass. I vaguely remember learning about slavery in school and while I do remember my teachers remembering that this was a horrific time in our nation's history, we completely skipped over Reconstruction, entered Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights movement.
All of which were a few pages (if that).
As I got older, I remember learning about Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court decision regarding Brown vs. Board of Education. I distinctly remember being assigned to read the Letter from Birmingham Jail and prepare for a talk about it in class.
Although, I'm grateful for these glimpses into Black American History, I don't know how much of an affect that it had in my life. Understanding the context of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, digging deeper into what Reconstruction meant for Black Americans, learning about what Dr. King really thought about his I Have a Dream speech given at the March on Washington later in his life, looking at the social, political, and economic equity that the Black Panther Party fought for, redlining and housing discrimination, the Tulsa massacre (and so many events like it throughout US History) -- all of these weren't topics discussed in the classroom when I was growing up. These were all things that I either learned growing up in a predominately Black church and/or as an adult as I began to dig deeper into our nation's history, specifically where it concerns my ancestors.
While I joke about Black Americans getting the shortest month of the year to celebrate and to learn more about the triumphs, struggles, contributions, and issues that still largely affect us during this month, our society is more attuned to learning more about Black History. For me, Black History Month is a time to refocus on what it is that we as adults know about our own history and to challenge our education system to take a more critical look at our history. If we truly strive to dismantle white supremacy (American exceptionalism is a GLARING example of this), one place to start is in taking an objective look at our country's past.
The ideals on which this country was founded on, while they were penned by white "land-owning" (they stole it) men, are something to strive for and in taking a hard look at US History, the fight for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is one that Black Americans know all too well.
Black History tells many different stories -- unique, multifaceted, and multi-layered -- and it'll take more than just a month to get through it. We continue to miss out on the stories of so many people who contributed a great deal to what our country is today, but in eliminating and whitewashing their stories altogether does both them and us a disservice. Studying history isn't about one's comfort, but understanding how we've arrived to this moment in time. Our country has yet to heal from the deep and festering wound of chattel slavery and doing a critical study of Black History (which is American history) is part of the surgical work for us to be able to heal and move on together.
Black History Month IS that focal point, so I challenge you to look at what you've been taught with a critical lens, but to also explore the writings and teachings of Black scholars this month and beyond.
A few places to start: